MYTH AND REALITY
The popular image of 4WD vehicle users as yahoos who tear up the landscape by irresponsible trail blazing and vehicular acrobatics is fortunately largely a myth. Sadly this erroneous mental image is still kept alive by slighted 4x4 TV ads, environmental groups and a very small minority of said irresponsible yahoos. You can explore many thousands of miles of dirt roads and trails and never witnessed such behavior. Of course there are still a few who are irresponsible, just as there are irresponsible backpackers. The reality is that people nowadays use their 4WD vehicles as a means to access, explore and appreciate remote natural areas of the back country. Most vehicle users you will meet in these areas are responsible appreciators of nature who adhere to the Tread Lightly principles -- a set of common-sense rules for low-impact travel by vehicle.
First established by the Forest Service, the Tread Lightly concepts are now universally adopted by 4WD manufacturers, clubs and individuals. The most important rule is to drive only on established roads and trails. Cross-country trail blazing and other vehicular antics are now confined to designated "open areas". All other so-called "off-road" travel actually takes place on established roads. Responsible "off-roading" has virtually no environmental impact and certainly no more than other forms of back country travel such as backpacking expeditions. This leads to much confusion in the use of the term "off-road" travel. A more appropriate term for what is actually meant would be "off-pavement" travel. In reality, off-pavement back country explorers have much in common with environmental groups. 4WD clubs are frequently involved in environmental cleanup and conservation projects in collaboration with federal land management agencies. The negative image of four wheelers still persists in many uninformed peoples' minds and it takes "getting involved" and hard work to change this situation.
RELATIVE ENVIRONMENTAL IMPACTS OF VEHICLES AND HIKERS
The assumption that hikers cause less environmental damage than vehicles is highly questionable at best. Hikers are much less likely to carry out their litter, and much more likely to leave established trails, step on plants, and leave human waste and toilet paper lying about. They will, out of necessity, spend more time in a given area, with more need to camp overnight, usually near springs and water sources. They have greater need to forage and burn local firewood unlike vehicle users who can carry in their own. Their longer travel times give rise to more pollution through human bodily waste, more opportunity for vandalism, and less likelihood of staying on established trails when compared with vehicular visitors. In the case of mishap they are much harder to find and get to, which places more strain on search and rescue resources than their vehicle-bound counterparts. Ironically, in many protected areas cross-country hiking, with its virtual guarantee of flora and fauna disruption, is permitted and considered politically correct, while driving on an established road where such disruption is physically impossible is banned.
Many off-roader have experienced first hand the relatively greater environmental impact of hikers. One member commented: "I see more problems caused by hikers than by vehicles. Fouled water, littered camp areas, graffiti, "TP" littering the ground after the snow melt from winter backpackers, etc. being some examples." All this is not to say that exploration on foot is bad; just that the common assertions by some environmental groups about the imagined evils of vehicular travel are mostly false. Following responsible, low impact procedures is important in either case. There is a place for both forms of travel; indeed, for most of the population, including children, older citizens, those with chronic diseases, and the disabled. Long desert hikes of several days are impossible, and primitive roads are the only practical way to access and appreciate the grand beauty and isolation of the remote wilderness.
OUR DISAPPEARING ROADS AND TRAILS
Anyone now visiting the Mojave Desert finds red signs everywhere announcing the closure of many of the dirt side roads which have been established, if infrequently travelled, vehicular routes since the first wagons came West. The recent huge rash of closures are primarily a result of the California Desert Act, which many off-road vehicle users supported in the belief that responsible use of dirt roads would be largely unaffected. In the Death Valley area, a typical example of the Desert Act impact is the closure of Greenwater Canyon, a unique scenic and historic trail including impressive petroglyphs. As in many other closed areas, access on foot is impractical due to the canyon's length and lack of water. This has been a traditional travel route since ancient times, with vehicular traffic at least since the 1906 Greenwater copper rush. Access to large parts of the historic 20 Mule Team Borax Trail is also closed off by this and other recent actions. A red sign decorates the Lost Lake access road; it is hard to imagine any (eco)logical reason for closing such a veritable needle in the haystack of the surrounding hundred square miles of roadless area.
The California Desert Protection Act was followed by various other actions such as the West Mojave management plan and lawsuits by environmental organizations alleging the BLM was not protecting the desert sufficiently, expansion of Fort Irwin, and the proposed California Wild Heritage bill. The result has been to close off the majority of pre-existing roads and trails in the Mojave Desert. Everywhere, side roads leading to old mines or to nowhere in particular have the red sign blight, greatly reducing opportunities for exploring and environmental appreciation. A partial list of closures in Death Valley alone affects at least a dozen areas and trails, relegating much of Roger Mitchell's classic "Death Valley Jeep Trails" to history. In short, the possibilities for desert exploration and appreciation are greatly reduced.
While having no conceivable environmental benefit (and making management, fire control and rescue operations in such areas more difficult and expensive), the recent excessive closures in the Mojave are having the unintended side effect of politically mobilizing the massive SUV-owning, tax paying public who support bona-fide conservation, but object to being arbitrarily excluded from environmentally responsible enjoyment of their own public lands. Most off-pavement explorers are conservationists; however they believe in a balanced approach which preserves responsible, low impact access to our remote natural areas. Such a balanced approach has been sadly lacking in recent years.
Many of the roads affected by "environmental" measures are of historic importance and have been used by wheeled vehicles since time immemorial. Denying access prevents us and our children from exploring our historical roots. How, for example, can we relive and appreciate the experience of the pioneers bouncing and jolting westward in their covered wagons if, as is likely, large sections of the original California Trail are closed to wheeled traffic? How can we view and appreciate remote petroglyphs or revisit the drama of early mining rushes if historic access roads like Greenwater Canyon are closed? Will the experience of reliving the immortal Death Valley 20 Mule Team Borax Trail be lost forever? Indeed, the existing wheel tracks of such trails would soon be obliterated altogether by vegetation and erosion if not kept in existence by the continuing passage of wheeled traffic.
EQUAL ACCESS FOR ALL
The proliferation of narrowly defined "Wilderness Areas", in which access on foot only is permitted, is an inequitable, elitist means of environmental preservation in addition to being inefficient in terms of environmental management. Restricting access to experienced long distance hikers only is a civil rights violation, as it excludes the disabled, children, the elderly and frail, and anyone without unlimited time and the superb fitness needed for long desert hikes. The Americans with Disabilities Act, for example, guarantees equal access to all public facilities, of which publicly owned remote scenic areas are certainly an important component. For most people, in fact, the only chance to access and appreciate the truly remote back country is by vehicle. In practice, many closures exclude even hikers, since it is physically impossible to carry several days' water and camping equipment across hot, waterless deserts. Interestingly, many if not most closures may themselves be illegal since they violate pre-existing rights of access under such laws as RS 2477. Clearly, taxpayers of all stripes have a right to access their own public land. Reform of legislation, regulation and management practices which effectively exclude the majority of the public are therefore urgently needed.
If you are concerned about roads and trails being closed in your state, become informed and participate in reversing this trend don't forget to write, fax, E-mail or visit your Congressman. Write to the government agencies implementing the Desert Act and other land use measures; get on their planning process mailing lists. Why not take a minute right now and email the US House of Representatives Committee on Resources to tell them of your concerns? Also, join and donate money to organizations fighting for your cause. Why purchase a 4X4 if you have nowhere to use it?
Local clubs can organize educational programs and backcountry trips for Congressmen and their staff, so they can experience real-life, responsible vehicle use and appreciate first hand the obvious lack of environmental impact of these roads as well as their practical necessity for accessing remote areas.